S Sudan conflict: UN calls on government to free prisoners

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Media captionThe BBC's Andrew Harding says it appears Bentiu was recaptured from rebels with just a "small amount of resistance"

The UN Security Council has urged South Sudan President Salva Kiir to release political prisoners to help bring an end to the bitter conflict there.

Rebel leader, Riek Machar, wants 11 people freed before agreeing to peace.

Mr Machar's forces appear on the back foot after losing the town of Bentiu to government forces on Friday.

The government says it is mobilising thousands of troops to retake Bor - the last major town controlled by Mr Machar's forces.

Mr Machar, a sacked vice-president, has expressed determination to hold on to the town, the capital of Jonglei state, some 200 km (125 miles) north of the capital, Juba.

Speaking to the AFP news agency by phone, he sought to explain the loss of Bentiu, capital of the oil-rich Unity State.

"It was to avoid fighting in the streets and save civilian lives," he said.

Army spokesman Philip Aguer said that fighters on both sides had been killed.

Ahead of the government advance, thousands of people fled Bentiu, while several thousand sought refuge in a UN base in the town.

Peace efforts

The 15-nation UN Security Council statement on prisoners was made in the hope of kick starting peace talks between representatives of the two sides in Ethiopia.

But Mr Kiir has insisted that the 11 jailed must face the force of the law.

The UN statement called for a ceasefire and wider peace talks. The Security Council also "strongly discouraged external intervention that would exacerbate the military and political tensions" - seen as a referring to Uganda, which has been sending troops and attack helicopters to bolster government forces.

The peace talks, in a luxury hotel in Addis Ababa, are aimed at an immediate cessation of hostilities, but little progress has been reported.

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Media captionThe BBC outlines the background to South Sudan's crisis - in 60 seconds.

The BBC's Andrew Harding in the South Sudanese capital, Juba, says the question now is whether the recapture of Bentiu will spur on negotiators in Ethiopia to reach a ceasefire agreement to avoid further fighting.

The conflict, which began on 15 December, has seen outbreaks of ethnic violence between Dinkas, the community of President Salva Kiir, and Nuers, like Mr Machar.

Although both leaders have influential backers from the other's community, the conflict has often taken on an ethnic dimension.

According to the UN, the fighting has killed "very substantially in excess" of 1,000 people.

South Sudan is the world's newest state. It became independent in 2011 after seceding from Sudan.

Image caption Fighting erupted in the South Sudan capital, Juba, in mid-December. It followed a political power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his ex-deputy Riek Machar. The squabble has taken on an ethnic dimension as politicians' political bases are often ethnic.
Image caption Sudan's arid north is mainly home to Arabic-speaking Muslims. But in South Sudan there is no dominant culture. The Dinkas and the Nuers are the largest of more than 200 ethnic groups, each with its own languages and traditional beliefs, alongside Christianity and Islam.
Image caption Both Sudan and the South are reliant on oil revenue, which accounts for 98% of South Sudan's budget. They have fiercely disagreed over how to divide the oil wealth of the former united state - at one time production was shutdown for more than a year. Some 75% of the oil lies in the South but all the pipelines run north
Image caption The two Sudans are very different geographically. The great divide is visible even from space, as this Nasa satellite image shows. The northern states are a blanket of desert, broken only by the fertile Nile corridor. South Sudan is covered by green swathes of grassland, swamps and tropical forest.
Image caption After gaining independence in 2011, South Sudan is the world's newest country - and one of its poorest. Figures from 2010 show some 69% of households now have access to clean water - up from 48% in 2006. However, just 2% of households have water on the premises.
Image caption Just 29% of children attend primary school in South Sudan - however this is also an improvement on the 16% recorded in 2006. About 32% of primary-age boys attend, while just 25% of girls do. Overall, 64% of children who begin primary school reach the last grade.
Image caption Almost 28% of children under the age of five in South Sudan are moderately or severely underweight - this compares with the 33% recorded in 2006. Unity state has the highest proportion of children suffering malnourishment (46%), while Central Equatoria has the lowest (17%).

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